“How can I stop worrying about what other people think about my writing?”
“I want to write, but what if other people don’t like it?”
“How do you handle criticism? I don’t think I’d be able to handle it if something I’d written was criticised…”
Here’s a truth: we can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect to have adoration without criticism. Nobody can. Look at all the most famous people in the world – they get a lot of love, and they get a lot of hate. It’s just reality. Pleasant? Maybe not. Unfair? Maybe. But reality doesn’t care about adjectives. It cares about nothing. It just is.
Think about LeBron James. The guy led his team back from a 3 – 1 deficit in the NBA Finals, against the best regular season team in NBA history, and brought the first major sports championship to Cleveland in 52 years.
The city loves him. They renamed a street after him (“King James way”). He’s a God to Cavs fans.
And you know what? For some people, it still isn’t enough. They still don’t like him. They actively hate him.
I say all of that to say this: you will be criticised. At some point, and in some way, it will happen. Pretending it won’t, pretending you’re immune to it – that’s naïve.
Which is exactly what I was.
When I first put my writing out to the world, I was scared. I was telling the truth like I’d never told it before. I was telling the world about myself like I’d never told anybody before.
I wanted people to like what I’d written. I wanted people to like me. I wanted people to comment on how much they liked what I’d written and how awesome I clearly was.
I thought I deserved that. Because I was being so honest, and so brave, and so surely I deserved to be treated with kindness, and only with kindness.
You can see the allure: writing without the fear of being criticised. Wouldn’t that be lovely! Who wouldn’t want that?
Obviously, this is delusional. Which is the opposite of living in reality.
Here are some comments I’ve received on things I’ve written:
“you are such a bad person..how do you tolerate yourself..i don’t hate you or anything..i have no right..but by god you must not like yourself either”
“It feels like this attitude belongs to someone either so dumb, or someone who went through something very hard and now they lost their mind.”
“So, did you get help with your sex addiction and narcissistic personality disorder? Please don’t deny that either of these exists in you.”
“This is utter drivel.”
“You’re a douche, simple as that.”
Can you imagine if I took all of those personally? How bad I’d feel? How worthless I’d think I was?
If nothing else, it would be exhausting. First I have to think I’m a bad person, then I have to not like myself, then I have to think about whether I’m dumb or insane, then…. Yeah. See? Exhausting. Unsustainable.
But why don’t I take this stuff personally? Why doesn’t it affect me? Why doesn’t it stop me from writing?
Well, because I’m not my writing.
I work hard on my writing. I put a lot into my writing. I put a lot of myself into my writing.
But none of that means I’m my writing.
I’m the one who writes my writing. I can’t be my writing.
I’m less “writer” and more “human being who writes”.
Comments like the ones above aren’t about me. They’re about something I’ve created. They’re about something separate to me. Something that isn’t me.
And, if the person commenting intended their comment to be about me, as a person, as a human being, then they’re not even worth spending an extra second thinking about. Unless you’re thinking about the irony of someone calling me a “douche”, and how that someone probably doesn’t see that doing this is exactly the kind of thing only a “douche” would do.
There’s another side to this.
If we shouldn’t take criticism personally then we shouldn’t take praise personally either – much as our ego might want us to.
It’s like I said at the beginning: we can’t have it both ways.
We can’t not take our criticisms personally and then absolutely take our praise personally. That’s not how it works. It might feel good, in the short term, but it’s not reality.
If nothing else, taking our praise personally takes away our edge. It gives us a false sense of how brilliant we are. We think that our successes are completely down to us, and that we’re untouchable, and that from now on everything we do will be as amazing as we so undeniably are.
Can you see how dangerous that could be? Can you see how we get sucked in by it? Can you see how people start to need this praise to feel good?
If we take our criticism personally then we’ll go so low that we’ll stop creating. We’ll start thinking we’re a bad person. We’ll start believing that we’re somehow not good enough.
If we take our praise personally then we’ll go so high that we’ll absolutely believe that we’re entirely responsible for all our success. We’ll think we’re better than other people. We’ll think we’re better than we actually are.
Imagine vacillating between those two, all the time, depending on what strangers said to you. Like I said before: exhausting. Unsustainable.
Also – if you’re taking all of this stuff personally, does that mean you care more about how you’re perceived by others than about telling the truth?
Is that what artists do? Is that how writers write?
In this article, I could’ve said to never take your criticism personally but to always take your praise personally. That might’ve made some of you feel good. That might’ve given you your excuse to ignore your criticisms but to take your praise to heart.
But that’s not the truth. And I don’t want to be a writer who prioritises how people might feel over telling them the truth.
Your art will get criticised. Your art will get praised. Neither is a reflection of you – you the human being. It’s a reflection of what the worthy human that is you has created. And let’s keep being honest: that criticism might be valid. It might be a chance for you to get better. It might be the objective eye you need to finally go beyond whatever plateau you’re on.
By taking it personally you waste a chance to get better. You waste that objective eye because it’s more important for you to feel comfortable than it is for you to improve.
A final point: if you’re taking your criticism and your praise so personally, is it because you value other people’s opinions of you over your own opinion of you? Because if so, your emotions will be all over the place. Criticism? You’ll feel sad and frustrated and hopeless. Praise? You’ll feel happy and satisfied and “enough”. Not terrible things to feel, of course. But when you’re relying on other people, on strangers, to make you feel them? That’s a dangerous (and uncontrollable) game.
When we realise we’re more than our work, when we realise we’re allowed to value ourselves more than we value the opinion of others, we stop taking our criticism and our praise so personally.
We just start using them to get better.